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Clitoris Envy, or What I Learned in Female-Orgasm Class

Thursday, September 29, 2005 - LA WEEKLY

By DAVE SHULMAN

Sex educators Courtney Cruz and Shelby Jones are conducting a one-night seminar called "The Big One!: The Truth and Lies of Female Orgasms" in a curtained-off corner of the Pleasure Chest in West Hollywood. Surrounding them, nine students - four female, four male, one journalist - sit in a semicircle of foldout chairs. On the floor between us is a makeshift coffee table with a few books and many sex toys; beside the table are two large cardboard boxes filled with no books but lots more toys. Behind our instructors, two diagrams show the female reproductive and sexual anatomy. The word clitoris is conspicuously highlighted by a large asterisk and the term Yay!

You may have noticed, as I have, a smell common to sex-accessory stores. It's a faint but acrid blend of latex, silicone and polyethylene, I'd guess, but the combination produces an almost organic scent. More specifically, the Pleasure Chest smells like Trader Joe's Raspberry Lemonade.

Cruz warms up the class with some light biology. "All fetuses start out female," says she. "At the second trimester, it's decided genetically whether it's going to be a boy or a girl. The clitoris then changes, if it's a boy, into the head of a penis. Nerves develop, more so in a clitoris than they do in the head of a penis. The woman's clitoris has 600 times the amount of nerve endings that the tip of the male penis has."

Oohs and ahhs from the class. Jones takes over, shifting us toward Victorian hysteria and the origins of the vibrator. "In the 1880s," she explains, "there was this theory that the uterus was not a fixed organ, but rather that it floated. And when it began to float and migrate around your body, women would get a number of symptoms. Weepiness, irritability, insufferable nagging. Things like this. They made this up, and it was very serious."

"Was that before they became witches?" a student asks.

"Post-witches. But, you know, they may as well have called them witches. But they didn't light these women on fire. Instead, they went, ‘Oh, you're hysterical . You have to go to the doctor.' And they had actual doctors that would massage these women into what they called ‘hospitable patronage' - meaning that they brought them to orgasm, and then all the sudden the women were calm and happy as Hindu cows.

"And they'd send them home, and their husbands would say, ‘This is fantastic!' And the women'd be going, ‘Uh, I have to go to the doctor again. I feel hysterical.' And this is how it all started."

Electronic vibrating devices seemed to bring on hysterical paroxysm (as the female orgasm was then called), and hence this docile post-orgasmic goal, more efficiently than manual massage, and soon a Dr. Joseph Mortimer Granville patented one such device for household use. "At the time," says Jones, "it was only the fifth household device to be electrified, following the sewing machine, the fan, the tea kettle and the toaster. It preceded the vacuum cleaner and the electric iron by at least a decade."

But with the advent of motion pictures in the 1920s came early porno flicks, a.k.a. "blue movies," in which women were shown using vibrators for decidedly sexual stimulation, and so the incorrigible vibrating phalli were removed from the Sears Roebuck catalogs and demoted (or promoted) to less public shelves, where, to avoid epidemics of pleasure, their availability is controlled by delusional Jesus addicts.

"In Alabama, Georgia and Texas," says Cruz, "it is still illegal to purchase items that are used for genital stimulation."

"What do they do," I ask, "about stuff like ultrasonic electric toothbrushes? Those work."

Jones reads the Alabama statute: "Code statute 13A-12-200.1, quote, ‘makes it unlawful to produce, distribute or otherwise sell sexual devices that are marketed primarily for the stimulation of human genital organs. No fundamental right to purchase a product in pursuit of having an orgasm.’ That is the actual law."

"When did that go into effect?" a disgusted student asks.

"Whenever the Baptists were in charge," grumbles another.

"I'm not sure exactly when that went into effect," says Jones. "I know it was around the time of obscenity laws, so I'm guessing '60s or '70s. But there's still hope. Four Alabama women and the ACLU are challenging this law. One of the big stipulations in their arguments before the court is that Viagra is legal and very easily accessible, but personal vibrators - seemingly geared toward female stimulation - are not. So that's fair. That's great."

Cruz lifts our spirits with a whirlwind tour through female-orgasmic myths (orgasm's better with a partner, abstinence keeps people healthy, all women can climax during intercourse, use it or lose it, Freudspeak) to female ejaculation, the Grafenberg spot, clitorectomy and adjacent unimaginable horrors, self-image, vaginal rejuvenation, L.A. Weekly and the significance of pornography. This last is interrupted by the sound of a woman moaning, quite loudly and faux-orgasmically. The sound is coming from a student's pocket.

The student reaches into his pocket, extracts and opens a phone. Moaning stops.

"Hey," says student to phone. "Can I call you back? Thanks." He hangs up. "Sorry."

The class takes a 10-minute break to roam around, pee, get acquainted. I stay behind to fidget with the audio settings on my recording device. The only other student remaining is the one whose cell phone had moaned. He opens the phone.

"Hey, Mom," says he. "Sorry I couldn't talk. What's going on?"

I can't decide how disturbing this is. But it doesn't matter. The class returns for the second half - a less formal discussion of and interaction with sex toys (yes, all conveniently available for purchase in the store), with an emphasis on the proper correlations of water-based and silicone-based lubricants with remote-controlled vibrating eggs, dick-like things, cock rings, clit clips, snatch-toodlers, clit-pumpers and baroque dildeaux of various substances. Dozens of toys are passed around and sampled. Some are quiet, some sound like leaf blowers. The students seem much more comfortable with one another now. Less like strangers in a class, more like strangers over dessert at a dinner party, enjoying the buzz of our hosts' highly hospitable patronage.